First-generation college road map

First-generation college road map

Starting college can be scary for anyone. When you are a first-generation student, that journey brings challenges, as well as joys, not always felt by students whose parents went to college.

Amanda Z., a first-generation student in Oregon, remembers feeling pressure as she considered her choices: “If I go to college, I’m figuring it all out by myself, and if I don’t go to college, then I put that pressure on my kids. But it also feels really good — empowering — that I can do that for my family.”

If you are the parent of a first-gen student, understanding their experience and supporting them will make a world of difference. Here are tips to help your high school student with their college search and to guide both of you into the new world of higher education.

Find mentors

Learning about colleges and filling out applications is a lot of work. If you are the parent of a first-gen student, know that you do not have to do this all alone, and you should not feel guilty about what you don’t know. Find a mentor — the parent of one of your students’ friends, a teacher at the school, or your own friend or coworker who has been to college or helped a student get there.

For Amanda, that mentor was an art teacher who helped her realize that she qualified for Willamette Academy, a selective college access program that supports students from the summer before 8th grade to high school graduation and college admission. “Had I not gone to Willamette Academy…I probably wouldn’t even have known what college was,” Amanda said.

Talk about college early and often

Even special college access programs can’t entirely prepare students for college. It’s important to encourage your student to think about college so they begin imagining themselves choosing this path. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers — just start conversations in which both you and your student can explore goals, questions and concerns.

Amanda’s high school had a college information office to help students complete applications, fill out FAFSA, find scholarships and keep track of deadlines. “But,” she told me, “I barely even knew it was there.” Students already had to have some knowledge about college before that office could be useful to them, which is why talking about college at home is essential.

Even if you haven’t been to college, you’ve probably moved to a new place or started something new and difficult. Use any struggles you’ve worked through to imagine what your student will face so that you can better support them.

Use the resources at your student’s high school

COUNSELORS

Encourage your student to make an appointment with their counselor who can:

  • Help your student figure out where to start their college search based on their grades, test scores, interests, and career goals
  • Help them compare different types of colleges
  • Provide information about scholarships and the application process
  • Guide you and your student to additional help: financial aid workshops (finding money to pay for college), essay and SAT/ACT tutors, and college fairs
TEACHERS

Teachers are also a great resource. If your student loves math, it’s important to talk to their math teacher about what classes are required for college. Teachers can also answer questions about:

  • Where they themselves went to college
  • What they studied in order to prepare for their career
  • What kinds of jobs are available to college graduates

What size school is right for your student?

Colleges and universities can be small (a couple thousand students) or large (20,000-30,000 students!). One first-gen student told me that going to a large university was uncomfortable. “You really can’t feel like an individual when you’re in a crowded area like that.”

Help your student explore what kind of learning environment is best for them by talking about the classes they are in now. Even though their high school classes probably aren’t as large as many college classes, you can discuss what activities (small group or partner work, lectures, hands-on experiments, individual assignments) they like most to help them understand how they learn.

You can both do it.

The road to college is challenging, and there will be setbacks and disappointments along the way. You can model a positive attitude for your student. Confidence is contagious!

TERMS TO KNOW:

First-generation (“first-gen”): First person in the immediate family to attend college (highest degree obtained by either parent is a high school diploma or less). Not to be confused with first generation immigration status, but a student could be both.

Mentor: Someone you trust who has the experience to help and guide you.

FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. College students need to fill this out each year in order to apply for financial assistance from the government, the state and their college or university.

SAT/ACT: Standardized tests taken junior and senior year in high school. Colleges use the scores when they consider your student’s application for admission. It costs money to register for the SAT and ACT and to send scores to colleges, but fees may be waived for eligible families. Your student can learn more from the high school counseling office. Some states administer either the SAT or ACT to all high school juniors without charge or need for registration.

Scholarship: A grant or other financial gift (which does not have to be paid back, like a student loan) to pay for higher education. Some colleges and universities will offer merit or need-based scholarships without a separate application but in most cases your student needs to apply for scholarships which may be awarded for academic or athletic achievement, written essays, and extracurricular or community involvement. Some scholarships seek applicants from particular backgrounds.

College fair: An event, usually held in a high school gym, attended by representatives from many college admission offices. College fairs are an opportunity for students to find out more about different schools. Admission representatives may also hold smaller informational get-togethers at individual high schools.

 

Special thanks to Mike Evans, Director of TRIO (a Federal outreach and student services program designed to identify and provide educational services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds), as well as the many wonderful first-generation students at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon who provided insight and expertise for this article.

 

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Amanda Knopf

Amanda Knopf teaches community engagement and service learning classes at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. She also tutors high school and college students in English, writing and test prep through the national tutoring service, Varsity Tutors. Amanda graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2012 and then earned a Masters in English from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Amanda is passionate about improving equity in higher education and college access for disadvantaged students, and also about softball — she played in college and has extensive coaching experience.

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  • I've been through the process twice, and you are so right: it is stressful! However, everything works out for the best. My daughter ended up attending a school she didn't even want to see. In fact, the day we went to visit, she decided to leave the tour early, rather than going to the question and answer session. Well, it was the best four years of her life thus far, and she has made lifetime friends and had many wonderful experiences because of her education there. Thanks for sharing. I always love reading your pieces.